David Kurtz

David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.

Articles by David

Another thought to follow up on my post below regarding what I called the Incumbent Party. One of the things that unites the Incumbent Party is, of course, the desire to preserve incumbency. And it has done a marvelous job of that. The Incumbent Party has reduced the risk of defeat faced by incumbents to about as close to zero as you can get while still maintaining a democratic system. Perhaps never before in our history have the structural underpinnings of American politics been so heavily tilted in favor of incumbency. Campaign finance, redistricting, the budget process--there are an abundance of ways the Incumbent Party has built its own perpetuation into the system.

My point is this: rather than being angry and indigant about the Lamont challenge, as Joe Lieberman reportedly is, shouldn't he be sheepish? I mean here is a guy with all of the built-in advantages of incumbency, and he still can't pull it off? No one has ever been particularly sympathetic to Goliath's plight, such as it was. To be angry about a stiff challenge is really to say that you don't want to have to the play the game at all. And that's precisely what the Incumbent Party is all about.

There are three parties in American politics. The third is the Incumbent Party. By that, I mean the peculiar (though certainly not inexplicable) tendency of the interests of incumbent elected officials to merge or align in a way that starts to erase the traditional partisan divide between them and creates a different kind of divide between them and their respective Republican and Democratic constituencies. (I’m by no means the first to observe this, but I’m not sure who gets the credit for first doing so.)

Much ink as been spilled in the last 30 years about the possible rise of a true third party in America. One of the reasons, and there are many others, that no third party has materialized out of the numerous third party candidacies during that period, I think, is that most independent candidates were running against the Incumbent Party rather than taking affirmative steps to unify voters around an identifiable set of beliefs. Opposing the Incumbent Party is the thread that links Perot, Nader, and the outsider candidacies by the likes of Jesse Ventura.

Sad to say but Joe Lieberman has become a member of the Incumbent Party. Ned Lamont’s candidacy is as much about opposing an Incumbent Party candidate, as it is a litmus test on the Iraq War. Others have run under the traditional party banners while campaigning against the Incumbent Party, and enjoyed some degree of success: Pat Buchanan, Howard Dean, and Arnold Schwarzenegger (to an extent) come to mind.

But off the top of my head I can’t think of anyone who has epitomized the Incumbent Party dynamic to quite the extent that Lieberman has. His decision to run as an independent in the general election if he loses the Democratic primary is the perfect microcosm of the Incumbent Party phenomenon. It’s one thing to abandon your party when you have lost election, like Buchanan did (twice). It’s quite another for an incumbent to lose his party primary and then try to mount a general election challenge. To announce it before the primary, well, there can’t be much precedent for that. Can anyone think of any?

My ambivalence about Lamont, like most of those conflicted about the race, comes from wanting the energies and resources of Democrats to be focused on defeating Republicans in a year where there is a real possibility of wresting control of one or both chambers of Congress away from the GOP. A Democratic Congress with Joe Lieberman in it is a whole lot better than a Republican Congress sans Lieberman. But it’s difficult now to see how a Lieberman victory, in either the primary or the general, is anything other than a victory for the Incumbent Party.

The WP today offers a broad overview of the role of Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar in the ongoing investigation of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La). Most of what is in Allan Lengel's piece has been reported before, but it's nice to step back and remind ourselves how outrageous this whole thing is:

[A] chauffeur drove Jefferson and his Northern Virginia business partner, Lori Mody, in a Lincoln Town Car down the winding pavement on Sorrel Avenue in Potomac to Abubakar's 2.3-acre property, partially shrouded by trees and protected by a six-foot-high black wrought-iron fence with gold tips.

Unbeknownst to Jefferson, Mody was wearing an FBI wire, and the chauffeur was an undercover FBI agent.

Jefferson met privately with Abubakar, without Mody, to discuss iGate Inc.'s involvement with a Nigerian partner in a high-tech venture to market Internet and cable television in Nigeria, according to the FBI affidavit.

Mody had invested $3.5 million, and Jefferson had a secret share of her business and of iGate.

Following the meeting on Sorrel Avenue, Jefferson told Mody that the vice president had demanded a cut of the profits. He said they also needed to give him a $500,000 payment "as a motivating factor," the affidavit said.

On July 30, Mody gave Jefferson a $100,000 bribe to pass on to Abubakar, and shortly after, Jefferson assured her that it had been delivered.

On Aug. 3, FBI agents found $90,000 of the marked FBI bills in Jefferson's freezer at his Capitol Hill apartment. None of cash had gone to Abubakar, according to the FBI affidavit.

If this were in a movie script, you would roll your eyes.

This is off topic, but congratulations to Floyd Landis, who today sealed a dramatic victory in the Tour de France. I mention it only because if you haven't read about Landis' ride in Thursday's stage, you really should, regardless of whether you know anything about cycling.

In making up nearly 8 minutes on the race leader in a grueling mountain stage, the day after bonking and losing the yellow jersey, Landis turned in one of the great performances in sports history. It ranks up there with Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game, Tiger Woods' 1997 Masters victory, and Bob Beamon's 1968 long jump, performances that simply defied what was believed to be possible.

Anyway, back to our regularly scheduled programming . . .

I guess conservatives have given up on the whole "9/11 changed everything" gambit. At least until it's convenient to bring it back up again. In its place we're getting schooled on what an intractable problem the Middle East is and has been for years, it turns out: too protracted for us to fix, too ancient for us to have exacerbated. In short, nothing has changed.

Here's where you roll footage of the blindfolded American hostages in Iran in 1979 and of the Marines in 1983 sifting through the rubble of their barracks in Beirut.

Queue up a somber voiceover from David Brooks:

If you look at the jihadists, they had a victory in '79 by pushing the Soviets out of Afghanistan. They pushed the U.S. out of Lebanon. The pushed the Israelis out of Gaza and out of Lebanon. They're probably pushing the U.S. out of Iraq. They are on the march.

Iraq is part of that, but it's not the whole story. They are on the march, and they're sidelining the reasonable people in the Middle East, who may be the majority, but right now what's happening in the Middle East is the Israeli public opinion has gone to the center, for withdrawal, but Arab decision makers have gone to the extremes, to Hamas and Hezbollah.

And that's just not something -- we can't call them up and have a summit. We can't have shuttle diplomacy. We can't invite them to Camp David because they're so extreme, so we are constrained. . . . it's gloomy, but it's a long historical trend of which Iraq is an important part.

This sudden embrace of the "long view," as Brooks calls it, is of a piece with the recent claims by some neo-conservatives that there was nothing we could have done to prevent the sectarian violence in Iraq given its "coarsened and brittle cultures." Or as Josh paraphrased it: sure, we had a crappy post-war plan in Iraq, but that really didn't matter one way or the other.

While it is true that you can understand little about the Middle East without understanding its history, conservatives have an obvious motive for wanting to compress the last 20-30 years of events in the Middle East. Linking the brutal events of the recent past with the brutal events of today allows them to skip over the fact that real progress toward peace and stability in the region was made in the 1990s, in part due to U.S. leadership and diplomacy. In doing so, I suppose conservatives hope to obscure what a hash they have made of the Middle East in the last 5 years.

Newt Gingrich, on the rebuilding of Iraq:

We need to fundamentally reorganize our nonmilitary bureaucracies to be effective. I mean, part of the reason you don’t have an effective Iraqi bureaucracy is the American inability at the State Department, the Agency for International Development, the Treasury Department, the Justice Department to provide any level of systematic competence is, is almost zero.
Did he leave anyone out? Hmmm, let's see . . . oh, yeah. The Pentagon!

It was the Pentagon that elbowed State aside and assumed full responsibility for post-invasion Iraq, despite having failed to undertake the sort of pre-invasion planning necessary to confront the enormous task.

It was the Pentagon that made no plans to rebuild the Iraqi bureaucracy because Rumsfeld thought if you lopped off the head of the regime and replaced it with a pro-Western government, the Iraqi bureacracy would just keep on keeping on.

It was the Pentagon that disbanded the Iraqi Army, one of Iraq's stronger bureaucratic structures, despite the warnings from U.S. commanders on the ground.

And let's not forget that Gingrich was on Rumsfeld's Defense Policy Board during the period in question and was one of the leading proponents of the Pentagon's approach.

Going around behind Gingrich to set the record straight could be a full-time job, but this particular blame-shifting canard needs to be confronted and knocked down hard.

For you, dear readers, I tried to watch the Sunday morning talk shows. But I must have blacked out when Newt Gingrich, on Meet the Press, said that we are now engaged in World War III and cited as evidence of that notion the terrorist wannabes arrested in Miami. I don't remember anything after that point. I know I have fallen down in the eternal battle against bamboozlement. I will only note that I had already endured Bill Kristol's unmitigated bamboozling of the Plame affair on Fox News Sunday. Surely that must count for something.

For the most part, the New York Times gets it right in its editorial today on Bush's (and Cheney's) obsession with expanding executive power:

To a disturbing degree, the horror of 9/11 became an excuse to take up this cause [of expanding executive power] behind the shield of Americans’ deep insecurity. The results have been devastating. Americans’ civil liberties have been trampled. The nation’s image as a champion of human rights has been gravely harmed. Prisoners have been abused, tortured and even killed at the prisons we know about, while other prisons operate in secret. American agents “disappear” people, some entirely innocent, and send them off to torture chambers in distant lands. Hundreds of innocent men have been jailed at Guantánamo Bay without charges or rudimentary rights. And Congress has shirked its duty to correct this out of fear of being painted as pro-terrorist at election time.

Exactly so.

But I do want to flag one concession the NYT makes, incorrectly in my view, in the midst of its otherwise solid indictment of the Administration (emphasis added):

While no one questions the determination of the White House to fight terrorism, the methods this administration has used to do it have been shaped by another, perverse determination: never to consult, never to ask and always to fight against any constraint on the executive branch.

Well, actually, quite a number of people question the White House's determination to fight terrorism. An Administration determined to fight terrorism after 9/11 would not have invaded Iraq, would have devoted considerable effort and resources to securing the nation's ports, and would have worked to minimize the effects of a terrorist attack by improving disaster preparedness, which Katrina starkly showed was not done. That's just the short list.

I don't want to make too big a deal of this because, taking the editorial as a whole, I'm not sure the NYT actually believes that Bush's determination is unquestioned. Much of the editorial's argument underlines precisely why the White House's determination to fight terrorism is questionable at best.

On the other hand, to frame the issue without challenging the White House's anti-terror credentials concedes far too much and ignores the many reasons, too numerous to document here but with which everyone is now familiar, to doubt this Administration's credibility.